Raymond Chandler, considered one of the greatest crime writers ever, was not always considered as such. He was once quoted as saying about his critics,
The thing that rather gets me down is that when I write something that is tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, I get panned for being tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, and then when I try to tone down a bit and develop the mental and emotional side of a situation, I get panned for leaving out what I was panned for putting in the first time.
I think that quote may bear some relevance to Daniel Polansky when I finish this review.
Polansky’s first novel, Low Town to those in America, and Straight Razor Cure to everyone else, was one of the more successful fantasy debuts of 2011. It blended a hard-boiled detective story with the grime encrusted edge that’s become somewhat expected in the modern fantasy novel. The sequel, Tomorrow the Killing, continues the formula, succeeding once again in telling a compelling story, but failing to connect with the reader as a piece of fantasy.
Warden is the best er… worst… drug dealer in Low Town, which for all intents and purposes is the worst place to be in Rigus,
. . .ugly, threadbare, and catering to a class of customer straddling that narrow line between rough and outright criminal.
A former soldier and member of the secret police, Warden finds himself at an odd crossroads, a figure with a foot in two different worlds. Perhaps ironically, he’d much rather have a foot in neither, and his frequent use of his own product would suggest he’s trying to check out all together. The novel begins when General Edwin Montgomery, a true blue war hero, asks for help bringing his runaway daughter, Rhaine, home. Reluctant, but compelled for reasons he can’t articulate, Warden takes up the torch.
Rhaine’s presence in Low Town isn’t the only thing brewing as the Veterans’ Association begins challenging the crown yet again for failing to meet their obligations to the Great War’s survivors. In something of an On the Waterfront union stand off, Warden must uncover Rhaine’s whereabouts, but also the endgame for his former brothers’ in arms. Thus begins the latest mystery in Polansky’s Low Town series. Tomorrow the Killing is less a whodunit and more a what-the-hell-is-going-on-and-why (new word).
Told in the first person, Polansky’s voice is not dissimilar from the aforementioned Raymond Chandler’s, lyrical in his descriptions,
There is a corner of every man’s soul that would prefer him dead. That whispers poison in his ear in the still hours of the evening, puts spurs to his side when he stands atop a ledge.
and raw and uncut with his dialogue,
“You can’t, but that wasn’t what I meant. If you don’t go see Mazzie today I’m going to hang out out the window by your fucking ankles. That firm up your schedule?”
Similar to Straight Razor Cure, and several other first person novels of late (i.e. Prince of Thorns), Polansky structures the novel around two time periods and jumps back and forth between them. The present surrounds Warden’s hunt for Rhaine, and the past details his connection to General Montgomery and his children.
That structure, because of the first person point of view, creates an odd wall between the narrator and the reader, where Warden knows the facts from the get go, but only reveals them to his reader at his leisure. This is likely more my own peevishness than a flaw in the novel, but I’m often frustrated by novels that take this approach. Were Tomorrow the Killing told as a memoir, like Howard Andrew Jones’ The Desert of Souls and The Bones of the Old Ones, such a story telling device would make perfect sense. As it is, the narration feels dishonest, manipulated and overworked. I found myself wondering why it was a first person novel? It’s a question I find myself unable to answer. Far better, to me, are the tricks Mark Lawrence plays in Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns where he utilizes a plot device to withhold information, rather than an arbitrary choice by a capricious narrator.
Those same complaints could be levied against Strange Razor Cure, but I consider the first novel a greater success, largely as a result of how the second novel positions itself as a fantasy. Straight Razor Cure dealt with powerful magics, and a villain bent on wholesale destruction, Tomorrow the Killing deals in smaller stakes, the fate of Rigus’ veterans and one young girl.
It makes for a grimmer tale, one that lacks any pulled punches. It’s also bereft of any sense of wonder, reading much more like a crime novel gone slightly off the rails than a fantasy one dealing in crime. To me, Polansky’s second effort is a perfect example of the blurred lines of genre convention gone wrong. What in Tomorrow the Killing requires that it be fantasy? Why did Polansky feel the need to tell this story in a second world environment? Since I’ve read it, trust me when I say nothing. There’s no reason this story had to be told in a second world, it is not fantasy. Or at least it’s not very good fantasy.
I suppose the same could be said of Joe Abercrombie’s most recent novels, or even the author I most often sing the praises of, K.J. Parker. Neither employ any great use of magics or speculative elements. Parker, nearly as a rule, uses none. Yet both authors never cease to invoke in me that sense of wonder that I find so vitally important to the nature of fantasy. Polansky managed it in Straight Razor Cure, but falls woefully flat in Tomorrow the Killing. Is it strictly because it lacks enough magic? I doubt it. I suspect it lacks something else — something I can’t put my finger on.
But, it is a reasonably good book. Despite being shallow in its trappings, too easy and nearly a paint by numbers crime novel, the author’s ability to spin a yarn makes it nearly impossible to put down. Polansky’s voice, as I heralded above, and the incredible pace he sets lends Tomorrow the Killing a great deal of charm even when it failed to be interesting.
With that, I recommend it, although not with any great vigor, recognizing that my complaints are likely the result of my own overly sensitive predilections. Certainly for fans of the Straight Razor Cure, keep reading. I’d also strongly suggest that fans of traditional urban fantasy give it a whirl; the streamlined narrative and style will likely appeal.